The Sovietisation of Afghanistan

From the archives: a briefing paper written by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Research and Analysis Department in February 1986. It gives a brief overview on how the Soviet Union has attempted to impose Soviet ideology onto Afghanistan, following its invasion of the country, through the attempted control and manipulation of religion, aid programs, the media, education, politics and economics.


Background Brief

Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London


This paper has been prepared for general briefing purposes. It is not and should not be construed or quoted as an expression of government policy.

February 1986


The Soviet leaders want to achieve a transformation of Afghan society which will ensure permanent Soviet influence; they seek the creation of a stable client State with institutions modelled on their own.

Sovietisation of Afghanistan is not yet a success, but it apparently remains the long-term Soviet objective - involving a restructuring of her economic, social and political system, as well as an expansion of ties of all kinds between Afghanistan and the Soviet bloc. The country is already heavily dependent on Soviet military and economic aid, while the regime is kept in power by the 118,000 or so Soviet forces installed there.

The Soviet leaders are no doubt well aware that the Afghan people's deep tribal loyalties and religious beliefs are largely incompatible with Sovietisation. Moreover, in present circumstances change is only possible in those areas, mainly urban, under the regime's control. The Soviet Union's primary tasks now therefore are to boost the regime's efforts to extend its control, while - together with the regime's leaders - persuading the population that social "progress" will benefit them and not run counter to their traditions.

The Soviet party newspaper Pravda, on 3 January 1986, acknowledged that the changes instituted by the 1978 Revolution had encountered "suspicion and even opposition" from some sectors of Afghan society. There is clearly concern that the six years of war since the Soviet invasion which brought Babrak Karmal to power have done so little to secure the position of the regime; Pravda's commentator tried to explain that Afghanistan was a backward country where the majority of inhabitants were illiterate and "captives of century-old traditions". At the same time, he stressed the importance of "national reconciliation" and claimed that recent moves - notably the inclusion of non-party figures in the government - were eliciting a positive response and should lead to the necessary "dialogue" among different groups in the country.

On 9 January Babrak Karmal told the party Politburo and the Revolutionary Council Presidium that the Council too would be enlarged to include candidates from a variety of "social groups". On 16 January, the appointment of 79 new members of the Revolutionary Council was announced, bringing the total to 146 - of which 51 were said to be non-party. (In fact most of the new members of both the Council of Ministers and Revolutionary Council already held positions under the regime.)

So far all the regime's attempts to widen the basis of its support have come to little. The party, headed by Babrak Karmal, remains the directing force of all activity and the main transmission belt of Sovietisation. As in the Soviet Union, the Politburo is the principal policy-making body, and party figures occupy the top posts in the government and administration at all levels. Party and government structures are strikingly similar in the USSR and Afghanistan, though the former is a federal State and the latter a unitary one. The Constitution of the Afghan party - the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) - is largely modelled on the Soviet party Statutes, though it omits the latter's references to the need to combat "religious prejudices".


The Afghan people's commitment to Islam is a major barrier to Sovietisation, and the Marxist-led regimes in power in Afghanistan since 1978 have tacitly acknowledged the strength of religious feeling by declaring respect for Islamic traditions and customs. The Babrak Karmal regime has been more assiduous in this respect than its predecessors, though it has increasingly been adopting Soviet techniques in an effort to direct religious activity to its own advantage and exert greater control over the clergy.

The Department of Religious Affairs was upgraded to become the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Religious Endowments in March 1985 and now resembles the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs and Muslim Boards rather than the Islamic Departments found in independent Muslim countries. It is officially described as having the tasks of "guiding the activity of religious institutions", administering their buildings and supervising religious ceremonies. The endowments bequeathed to a mosque are now paid to the Ministry instead of to the traditional mosque administrator, so that the mosque and mullahs associated with it are dependent on the State for money. The regime then takes the credit for maintaining the mosques and providing money for the few Afghans permitted to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The senior clerics have been organised into a High Council of Ulemas and Clergy which is expected to issue periodic statements or appeals in support of regime policies. In December 1981, the clergy were told that it was their duty to disseminate the party's objectives among believers. Nonconformists are punished. In November 1984, 20 senior clerics were dismissed from their posts in Kabul mosques on grounds of "sectarianism"; their real offence seems to have been criticising the regime. Islamic teaching is being steadily removed from the educational system. Addressing the Politburo on 6 April 1985, Babrak Karmal said that the schools must be changed so as to become an "active ideological and political arena" and the pupils made "active campaigners against the counter-revolution".

Educational changes

Both the regime leaders and their Soviet mentors clearly see education as the best route to the establishment of a new and pro-Soviet ruling elite in Afghanistan and, in the longer-term, a more receptive and cooperative public. The process begins within the party, and party committees at all levels have started indoctrination courses on a regular basis. The Kabul provincial committee claimed to have organised 115 courses during 1984. Schools, too, are introducing compulsory classes in Marxism-Leninism.

The education system is being brought more into line with Soviet practice. The length of study has been adjusted to conform with the 11-year period adopted by the Soviet Union in 1984. New subjects, such as military training and patriotic studies, have been introduced. More Russian is taught. Indeed, the classes at Kabul Polytechnic, formerly given in English, are now all in Russian. East German teachers have been brought in to replace those from the Federal Republic of Germany in the Amani High School who were expelled in February 1985. The expulsion of West German and French teachers, who had run schools in Kabul for some 60 years, was clearly an attempt to eliminate the remaining sources of Western influence.

Higher education has been badly affected by the country's instability and the demands of conscription - with young people being press-ganged into military service from 17 upwards. Student numbers have fallen and more girls are being admitted to the colleges. As a short-cut to indoctrination of the younger generation, the regime is sending thousands of children to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Cuba. Older people (some 51,000 between mid-1980 and the end of 1984) go for "training" holidays. In spite of regime claims that 10,000 young Afghans have already completed their education in the Soviet Union since 1980, the figure is likely to reach 25,000. An estimated 3,000 children, said usually to be orphans, aged between 10 and 14 are sent there every year. In November 1984, for the first time, a group of 870 even younger children, aged between 7 and 10, went to the Soviet Union to study there for 10 years. Every year children are sent for holidays in institutions in Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan. Current Soviet aid agreements with Afghanistan include the provision of scholarships for higher and secondary specialised education for 1,500 Afghans in the USSR and vocational education for 230. There are an estimated 3,500 Afghan students in Czechoslovakia and another 150 in East Germany.

Within Afghanistan, young people are encouraged to join the party-controlled Democratic Organisation of Afghan Youth (DOAY) which was originally the PDPA's youth wing and was then remodelled in 1979 to become more like the Soviet youth organisation, Komsomol. As in the USSR, younger children are catered for by a separate organisation, the Pioneer groups -which came into being in Afghanistan in 1980.

Soviet advisers

The PDPA, small in numbers, still divided into Parchami and Khalqi factions and remote from the mass of the people, is a blunt and inadequate instrument for pushing through the radical "transformation" of Afghanistan demanded by Babrak Karmal and his associates. While the regime and its Soviet backers endeavour to train and instal more Afghans capable of carrying out this task, Soviet advisers and administrators play a key role. Such people have been working in Kabul for many years. The numbers almost doubled in 1978 following the Saur coup (against President Daud), and by December 1979 the total had reached some 5,000. Shah Mohammad Dost, the regime's Foreign Minister, told foreign journalists in Kabul on 22 January 1986 that even before 1979, 2,500-3,000 of these were military; they would not leave when Soviet troops withdrew. (They permeate the Afghan armed forces down to battalion level.) Since 1979 numbers have increased substantially. They are used throughout central and local government. Soviet advisers hold key positions in the country's telecommunications, radio and television networks and oversee the Press - apparently giving directives at all hours. Soviet lecturers are active in the universities and polytechnics, some of them being officers of the Soviet security police (KGB), who are also involved in the work of the Afghan police. On 11 January 1986, it was announced that the previously semi-autonomous Afghan State Information Services (Secret Police) - usually known by its acronym as the KHAD - had been upgraded to become the Ministry of State Security, which is closer to Soviet practice.

Mass organisations

Soviet advisers have also helped to set up and run a variety of mass organisations which, like their Soviet models, act as channels for conveying party orders to all social groups. Most have close ties with comparable Soviet bodies - for example, the DOAY with the Soviet Komsomol. Other party-directed organisations include the Democratic Women's Organisation, the Union of Artists, the Union of Writers and Poets etc. A Lawyers' Society was set up on 21 January 1986 whose constitution specifically mentions the objective of supporting PDPA policies.

The National Fatherland Front (NFF), founded in December 1980, is intended to appeal to a wider section of the Afghan public than the PDPA does and to give the regime a broader basis of support. It has parallels in Bulgaria and East Germany. The NFF has recently been used to provide members for the Loya Jirga, or Great Council of the Tribes, which was convened last April, However, the Loya Jirga, a subsequent High Jirga of the Border Tribes (in Kabul in September), numerous smaller jirgas or councils and the NFF itself are almost universally regarded as regime tools, aimed above all at enhancing its legitimacy.

The Afghan trade unions, too, largely correspond to the Soviet model -differing in all essential respects from those in the non-Communist world. As in the USSR, they play no part in wage negotiations, which are all settled centrally. In recent years they have been enlisted to help form security brigades, to assist in the literacy campaign and to spread regime indoctrination. They have close ties with the central trade union bodies of Eastern Europe, Cuba and Vietnam, as well as the USSR. A dramatic expansion in the Afghan trade union network after 1978 is claimed to have almost doubled membership between 1978 and 1981 - the present figure being 164,000 members. At its First Congress in March 1981, the Afghan Trade Unions Central Council (ATUCC) voted to become a full member of the Soviet-led World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).

The media

For all international news, the Afghan media - Press, radio and television - use Soviet sources. The Russians have installed a land-based satellite communications station to improve transmissions into Afghanistan. With this Soviet assistance Kabul Radio broadcasts to all ethnic groups throughout Afghanistan in Pashto, Dari, Baluchi, Nuristani, Pashai and Turkmen. The Russians also help Kabul Radio's external services to broadcast to Asia and Europe in the following languages: Arabic, Dari, English, German, Russian, Urdu and French. Soviet publications are translated into Dari and Pashto and are distributed widely.

Great importance is attached by the Russians to training Afghan journalists working in the media. Agreements with the USSR, East Germany and Czechoslovakia include the provision of courses in journalism, together with equipment. The purpose of the media was expounded in traditional Soviet terms by the head of the journalism faculty of the PDPA's Social Sciences Institute in March 1983: "It is for journalists to publicise the ideals of the Saur Revolution and explain the party's objectives".

Economic integration into the Soviet bloc

Official Afghan regime sources noted on 15 September 1985 that more than a hundred agreements on Soviet-Afghan economic relations had been signed since the 1978 Revolution. In 1984-85, some 56 per cent of Afghanistan's exports were going to the USSR, compared with 35 per cent in 1978, and 57 per cent of her imports were coming from the USSR, compared with 28 per cent in 1978. Afghanistan's main export is natural gas, of which over 95 per cent is believed to go to the Soviet Union at prices generally below those in the West. This alone represents over 40 per cent of Afghanistan's total exports. A Soviet-Afghan agreement on "further broadening and deepening cooperation in the gas industry" was concluded in Moscow last August.

Most of the Soviet Union's aid projects in Afghanistan (see Annex) are geared to its own needs - strategic and, to a lesser extent, economic (causing an unbalanced development of her resources). The largest component, nearly 30 per cent of the total, is for development of natural resources, in effect oil products and gas. (At present she receives virtually all her oil from the USSR as there is no refinery on Afghan soil.) The next largest sector, transport and communications, concentrates on improving links between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. Thus the Soviet Union has helped to build a network of roads connecting northern Afghanistan with Soviet Central Asia (put to good use in the 1979 Soviet invasion), a harbour on the Amu-Darya River (facilitating the transport of heavy equipment into Afghanistan: cargo deliveries have trebled since 1978), and a railway station at Turgunday on the Soviet-Afghan border in Herat Province.

Also planned are the development of Kabul airport, the rebuilding and expansion of the strategically important Salang pass on the road between Kabul and the USSR, a new military airbase at Mazar-e Sharif, a rail link to the USSR (instead of the earlier scheme for lines connecting Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan), and further work on a 220Kw power line linking Soviet Central Asia with Afghanistan. The line concentrates on bringing Afghanistan into the Soviet grid system and is aimed in particular at providing electricity for the copper mining and smelting plant being built at Ainak in Logar Province. This, the largest Soviet-aided project, is expected to produce 70,000 tonnes of copper from 1988 and 110,000 tonnes on completion. But the copper will almost certainly go to the Soviet Union, as Afghanistan has so far virtually no industries able to use it.

The fact that most Soviet aid is in the form of loans means that Afghanistan, with so little to export, will be dependent on the USSR and indebted to it for many years.

Agriculture and domestic trade

Although rural areas have been badly disrupted and in many places depopulated by the fighting of the last six years, many farmers fleeing to the towns or neighbouring Pakistan or Iran, the Babrak Karmal regime seems determined to press on with a Soviet-inspired agricultural policy. Considerable amounts of Soviet aid are allocated to the development of State farms and cooperatives. Emphasis is given to State mechanised farms and use of large Soviet tractors - both unsuited to most parts of Afghanistan. The regime claims that a large share of the land has been distributed to peasant families and that many farmers have joined cooperatives - some being "organised into defence groups to protect their farms and the revolution". But the early attempts (particularly in 1978-79) to substitute a Soviet-style social order for the traditional pattern of rural Afghan life were both harsh and impractical.

The Karmal regime has admitted that mistakes were made, but the basic policy continues. Its efforts to make this more acceptable - specially to favoured or influential groups - include permission for army officers and village elders to retain larger holdings and for mullahs to keep ownership of some land.

Long process

Addressing an "extraordinary session" of the Revolutionary Council on 9 November 1985, Babrak Karmal presented 10 "Theses" on the current tasks of the Afghan revolution in which he acknowledged that many people "had not correctly realised" - ie accepted - the revolution's objectives and prospects, though he blamed "adventuristic" predecessors (Taraki and Hafizullah Amin) and "imperialism". The advancement of the revolution would be "a long and difficult historic phase", he conceded, and it was important to bring a wider range of "social groups" into the State organs and political, economic and cultural activities of all kinds. Thesis No 3 said that peasants must be encouraged to form cooperatives on a "completely voluntary basis".

The difficulty for Babrak Karmal is that the mass of the people still living in Afghanistan reject him as a Soviet puppet working for the Sovietisation of their country. They will continue to view his assurances and tactical changes of approach with scepticism for as long as the Soviet troops and advisers remain on Afghan soil to prop up his regime and prescribe its path.

The Russians have set their sights on the next generation. But Afghan society is far from malleable, and at present the regime's "reforms" reach only those areas (mainly urban) under Soviet control. In the countryside the Soviet Union has succeeded only in destroying the basis of what used to be Afghanistan's main economic sector: agriculture. Intensive bombing of areas of military importance has destroyed irrigation canals, villages and crops.





TOTAL thousand $US


PROJECTS (in order of size PERIOD in each sector)

Natural Resources



Geological prospecting work 1985-88 for oil and gas

Natural gas fields in Khodja- 1964-85 gougerdag and Juarquduq; operation and maintenance

Geological prospecting work 1978-85 for solid materials

Complex laboratory for 1979-85 analysis of solid materials

Transport and Communication



Reconstruction of Kabul 1981-84 Airport

Reconstruction of Turgunday 1983-86 Railway Station

State oil trucks services 1981-85 enterprises, Kabul

Freight handling harbour on 1980-84

Afghan bank of the Amu-Darya


Highways maintenance 1965-85

Road construction - plan 1984-2000 national network by the year 2000

State transport enterprise 1981-84 KAMAZ trucks in Kabul

Reconstruction Hairaton- 1982-86 Naibabad Road: 2nd tunnel to be built

State trucks services 1980-85 enterprises in Kabul-Puli-Khumri-Mazar-e Sharif and Hairaton: 6th automotive workshop built December 1985

Meteorological stations in 1979-84 Kabul



TOTAL thousand $US


PROJECTS (in order of size in each sector)





Housing construction in Kabul


Jangalah automotive repair works plant reconstruction in Kabul. New repair complex to be built (linked to this one?)


Maintenance of the nitrogen fertiliser plant and thermal power station, Mazar-e Sharif. One similar to be built in Jozjan

1974-84 1985-?

Housing construction in Shibergen for workers of gas industry


Projects for food industry in Puli-Khumri


Construction of oil store in Puli-Khumri


Reconstruction of cement factory. The road for it is now completed.



well over 7,780


Training and education in USSR


Technician training in Polytechnic, Kabul


Vocational schools


Russian language training


Institute of Social Sciences





Nangarhar development project


Tractor service stations


Plant protection


Olive processing and canning plant in Jalalabad. Second stage of cannery complete


Agriculture cont'd

Repair and reconstruction work on irrigation projects and supply of construction equipment


Reconstruction scheme of existing irrigation systems in the North region


Establishment of agro/chemical and soil chemical laboratories in Mazar-e Sharif and Nangarhai


Establishment of artificial insemination stations

1985 ?

Veterinary clinics and animal health


Irrigation project Serdah (completed October 1984)


Locust control


Electrical Energy



Transmission lines 220Kw USSR-Kabul with sub-station (90% of sector total)


Hydro-power plant, Puli-Khumri


Hydro-power plant, Naglou


110 Kw station at Mazar-e Sharif opened


Vocational school for training of electrical specialists


Transmission lines HOKw USSR-Kunduz. First phase nearly complete







Blood transfusion station


Central clinics in Kabul





Planning grant


Cartography work in Northern Afghanistan



20-bed hospital


February 1986

[Source TNA: FO 973/446]